Controversial hallucinogenic drug use explored in ‘Kentucky Ayahuasca,’ TV series – Lexington Herald-Leader

“Kentucky Ayahuasca,” a TV show that explores the administration of a controversial hallucinogenic drug via a shamanic healer based in Campbellsville, willl debut Nov. 28 on the Viceland network.

The 10-episode show follows Steve Hupp, “a former serial bank robber whose life was changed when a robbery went wrong and he found himself sharing a prison cell with a Peruvian shaman named Guadalupe who upon release, introduced him to the healing potential of Ayahuasca,” a press release from the Viceland network states.

“Now, Hupp and his family have opened a church deep in the Bible Belt of Kentucky, attracting people from far and wide seeking enlightenment, salvation or healing from any number of afflictions from depression and PTSD, to recovery from emotional or physical abuse and addictions of all kinds.”

The church is located inside a mobile home park in Campbellsville. A gift certificate for a group ceremony at the church sells on its website for $395.

The church organization requires all correspondence be conducted via e-mail and it reserves the right to refuse applications to participate. Those who participate must purchase a membership in its Native American Church.

Ayahuasca contains Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a controlled substance that is ordinarily not legal to posses or distribute according to federal law.

However, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 makes exceptions for people with sincerely held religious beliefs.

A 2006 Supreme Court ruling held that the government had failed to prove a compelling interested in regulating a church’s use of drugs for religious purposes.

Dr. Ashley Webb, director of the Kentucky Poison Control Center, said that DMT activates serotonin receptors in the brain and causes the hallucinogenic effect. Participants in ceremonies who take antidepressants or stimulant medication can be subject to “an incredibly elevated blood pressure and temperature,” she said.

The material used to make an ayuahuasca tea, which is given to church participants, “is not like a controlled pharmaceutical product, where you know exactly what you’re getting,” Webb said.

In 2016, a woman died after collapsing at a Native American church in Berea. Lindsay Marie Poole, 33, of Anderson, S.C., died and a lawsuit was later filed in Madison Circuit Court alleging she died due to “negligence.” The suit is still active, according to Lexington attorney Trey Moore.

Berea’s Oklevueha Native American Church of the Peaceful Mountain Way is affiliated with the Utah-based Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church of Utah Inc.

The Berea-based church is still operational. However, on its website, it states that it is not affiliated with Aya Quest “or any other self-proclaimed Native American Church that is not Oklevueha or that does not have tribal backing.”

Ayahuasca retreats have become so popular that there is an online website,, that lists ayahuasca events around the world.

The TV series was filmed in Burnside in Pulaski County, Hupp said, over a period of eight to nine weeks this last summer.

In a recent telephone interview, Hupp said that he first used ayahuasca in a six-day experience 17 years ago and came out spiritually transformed: “I had just interacted with entities, presences, spirits. … It was the first spiritual experience of my whole life, at that point.”

The screaming and vomiting that’s featured in some depictions of the ayahuasca’s effects “is a small part of aya, but it gets all the headlines,” Hupp said

Comedian Ali Wong refers to participation in an ayahuasca ceremony in her Netflix special “Baby Cobra.” An ayahuasca experience is also included in the movie “While We’re Young,” (2014), starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts.

Hupp said that ayahuasca — usually administered in a three-day, two-night stay — can help those with conditions from PTSD to drug addiction and depression.

He said those seeking an ayahuasca experience should diligently research where they’re going: “It’s not like picking a hotel off of Priceline. … This is a belly-to-belly business, this is a people business.”

The medical screening process done by his organization filters out those who take medications or have medical problems that could be aggravated by ayahuasca, Hupp said.

“We have not had one medical emergency, not one,” Hupp said.

The Viceland network debuted in March, 2016 as a joint venture between Vice Media and A+E Networks. Its shows include “Beerland,” about American home brewers, and “Bong Appetit,” exploring cannabis-infused meals.

The 10 episodes of “Kentucky Ayahuasca,” follow three people through the ayahuasca process. Cynthia Childs, an executive producer for the series, said that the 30 people were medically cleared by Hupp’s organization and later cast.

Childs said that “a great majority of the crew” were so impressed that they did an ayahuasca experience with Hupp after their obligations to the TV show were complete. Childs has also worked on series including Showtime’s “Time of Death,” about people facing terminal illnesses.

Being able “to document something sacred and special,” Childs said, has made the ayahuasca series “definitely … one of my favorite projects for sure.”